Tag Archives: Everglades

Musings on Film-Making

By Elam Stoltzfus


If the pithy saying  “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true, then how much is a video clip worth?

Most broadcast video clips have 30 frames a second. That is 30 pictures a second. That one second of video is worth 30,000 words. Multiply that by a minute. A minute of video is worth 180,000 words.

And this is if we are just talking about silent video! We haven’t even added music, audio, or natural sound. How much is a video clip worth? It is one of the richest mediums humans have to tell stories: pictures, words, music, audio all come together in one place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an hour of video is worth the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.


Elam with a broadcast video camera in 1984, his start in the industry.
Elam with a broadcast video camera in 1984, his start in the industry.


This year has been thirty years since I picked up a video camera. During that time I have shot both professional broadcast video and film.  Having a career in broadcast has been a thrill, a great opportunity to meet wonderful people, a ticket to travel the country , and the chance to document a collection of fascinating stories.  Each story has an emotional connection revealing heartaches, celebrated victories, exciting thrills, human interest, animal behaviors and much more.

Putting a camera on my shoulder (especially a heavy broadcast camera) was a free ticket to concerts and sports event with a front row seat—and sometimes a back stage pass (literally).

Elam with Joe Wasilewski and an invasive python in South Florida.
Elam with Joe Wasilewski and an invasive python in South Florida.
Elam filming a gator being pulled out of the Apalachicola river.
Elam filming a gator being pulled out of the Apalachicola River.
Elam Stoltzfus filming Joe Browder and Clyde Butcher in the Big Cypress Swamp.
Elam Stoltzfus filming Joe Browder and Clyde Butcher in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

When I picked the first video camera up in 1984, it was a game-changer for me. Before I had documented the world around me with a still camera. Video is no longer just images—it is synthesizing many things into one. With video you put together music, sound, photography, and stories into one unified piece. I soon realized that it is a medium that influences millions and millions of people. Film media has a long history, it is very influential. Film production is a challenging art form because of the multiple disciplines used to create a story.

With film-making you have to know a little bit of something about many things. In my role as an independent producer and film-maker I have to be a jack-of-all-trades.

From the visual side I have to know the composition. Not just static compositions, but moving images. When does an image start, when does the image end? And then not just one image, but multiple images because you have to edit it together the collection of compositions. How are you going to tell your story to your audience? One of the theories of good composition is clues you give to your audience and if you adhere to this structure, this is one of the first things you want to share with your audience.

An example would be to feature a homestead in the film. First, give the audience the setting of the place. Where are we? What does the house look like? Is it in the country? Is it in the city? Decide what composition best tells that story: Is it a wide shot? Giving your audience a wide shot first establishes the setting, but you really can’t engage in the conversation if the scene has people. You would want to do a medium shot, get the audience closer and then do some close-ups. Perhaps you have an argument. You would want to do some quick-cuts, you want to do some close-ups.  It is taking the audience, engaging them in the conversation, pushing the viewer forward and keep pushing them and, in a way, you are pushing someone into somebody else’s face and forcing them to experience this emotion. Compositions that captures emotions.

Then you have music. Music is what allows your emotions to ebb and flow. The ups and the downs. The sweetness, the sour. The love scenes, the anger. Music is that bed that flows and ties it all together. You have natural ambient sounds, you have voices. What kind of voices are you using? Low bass voices, the sound of God, versus sweet-sounding female voices that are enticing and nurturing.

Then you have a script—that is the words. Who is writing this? How are these words woven together to tie in with the emotions and what do you want people to know? What don’t you want them to know? What age group is your audience? What is your target? Who are you trying to reach? You have many, many elements, structures and mediums all coming together. Then on top of all that you put this piece together and then you have an opportunity to broadcast the story to the world. Think about this…. here is the story you worked on and it is being shared with millions and millions of people!  Sometimes they are all watching this piece of art all at the same time. Now is that amazing or what?

Here we are in 2014 with so many new opportunities with the media. We have social media, cable, distribution in ways that we never imagined 10 and 20 years ago. Many new stories and more opportunities are available to educate our world.The world is more intense, and it is going faster and faster and it is becoming smaller and smaller. And we need more material, we need more visual content and we have it everywhere!

But where do all these ideas start? The idea starts in your brain.  It’s those lightbulb moments; emotionally-charged memories that inspire us to create.  We have so many media tools and methods and opportunities to birth these ideas. That’s why the art of film-making is so important.

So, if you want to make a movie—go and make a movie! Capture your ideas, share your story with the world. The world will be a better place with your story.  Tell a story using video worth millions and billions of words. The world will be richer for it.


Introduction to the Big Cypress National Preserve

Written by Elam Stoltzfus

October 7th, 2013


This 90-second interstitial is a segment from the 13 part series I produced for WUSF and funded by the Mosaic Company.  Creating this series was an opportunity to dig into the archives of previous footage and tell new stories about a collection of great natural environments in Florida.

In 1989 I made my first trip into the Big Cypress National Preserve. Bev and Mike Lewis of Silk Purse Productions in Tallahassee were producing a special PBS production about Clyde Butcher.  This introduction was filmed with Clyde, a fine-art landscape photographer, and his wife, Niki. They were a gracious host and hostess.


What I found upon entering was amazing; the vast prairie landscape was dotted with miniature bald cypress trees. There was beauty of big open sky space. I remember walking through the swamp grass and feeling the sponginess of the soil.  It was during the drier season of the year. We filmed in the Big Cypress area for several days. I recall climbing up a 12-foot ladder to film Clyde with his old pre-civil war view camera out in the middle of the prairie.  There was sense of smallness in the middle of this huge landscape, yet an intimate moment of interacting with this ancient land.


Fast forward to the year 2008 and 2009: I was spending weeks in the Big Cypress National Preserve putting together an hour-long documentary, The Big Cypress Swamp: the Western Everglades.  By this time Clyde Butcher had established the Big Cypress Gallery right in the middle of the Preserve along Highway 41.  With the use of their cottage, this was home base for almost two years of documenting the swamp.  The Preserve was a great partner providing logistics and giving me access to remote areas of the 700,000-acre region.


During my few years of documenting the Big Cypress region, I began to understand that this a hotbed of biological diversity. It contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.

I have several great memories from my time filming the documentary. One was being with two landowners, Steve DeLine and “Hoss” Cartwright, during a trip to their hunting camp about halfway between Monroe Station and I-75 within the preserve.  The trip took five hours by swamp buggies.  The location was remote and very wild; located among a series of cypress domes.

Another moment was coming back from Bear Island Camp area and seeing a young panther crossing the road.  Sammy Tedder was traveling with me; he was able to get a quick image on his still camera.


One evening I had set up the camera and ladder, just north of Wagon Wheel Road to capture a time-lapse sunset.  As I was standing on the ladder (this takes about 45 minutes) waiting for the camera to capture the sequence, I heard some sloshing in the distance. The sound became more prominent and closer.  As I continue to scan the horizon for what was making this sound, I finally spotted a Florida Black Bear meandering around the cypress strand and slowing moving around to the right of my location.  I never moved and observed his movement until the bear disappeared in the distance.


Big Cypress Swamp provided me with an interaction with nature, up close and personal.  After spending so much of my time on location to document the “Eden swamp”, I took a bit of the swamp that now is part of my soul, but I also left a bit of my soul in the deep swamp of the Western Everglades.


Now, fast forward again to 2012, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition traveled through the Big Cypress National Preserve as we transversed from the Everglades to Okefenokee.  Its here we met up with Bob DeGross, Big Cypress Preserve Chief Park Interpreter, and Franklin Adams, Florida Wildlife Federation Board member. They both talked about the importance to have large-scale wilderness areas for wildlife and for people. These places of quiet, remote wilderness are for the healing of the soul and renewal of the spirit.  The Expedition team camped out in the primitive camp ground before hiking through the addition lands on our way to the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation.


For more information about the Big Cypress Swamp: Western Everglades go to: http://www.bigcypressswamp.org/home.html or http://www.nationalparks.org/explore-parks/big-cypress-national-preserve. The National Preserve has a Visitor’s welcome center with a theatre and an educational display to learn more about the Big Cypress Swamp.

For more information about landscape photographer Clyde Butcher visit www.ClydeButcher.com.  A must see place is the Clyde Butcher Gallery along Highway 41, halfway between Naples and Miami.